From last week’s Chain Gang, Birds of Chicago, comes not one but two new links. The first one is avian, from ‘Birds’ to ‘Eagle,’ while the second remains the city of Chicago but more specifically, its Union railway station. And the connection? It was from Chicago’s Union Station that Billy Bragg and Joe Henry boarded the Texas Eagle to San Antonio on the first stage of their musical train journey to Los Angeles. The result was their 2016 album, ‘Shine A Light’.
The railroad has been the lifeblood of both America and americana. This record is a collection of songs that reflect that bond. On their 65 hour journey of 2,700 miles southwards then to the west Bragg and Henry recorded their version of songs inspired by the railroads. This step back into musical and rail history was not a nostalgia trip but as they put it a “way of understanding just who we have become and why.”
From the Northern Staircase in the Great Hall of Union Station Bragg and Henry recorded ‘Rock Island Line’, ‘The L&N Don’t Stop Here Anymore’ and ‘The Midnight Special’. There, the two train troubadours set up their mic stand, unpacked their acoustic guitars then, like countless hobo musicians before them, sang from the heart. This they repeated at St Louis, Fort Worth, San Antonio, El Paso, Tucson before the final song at their destination, Union Station, Los Angeles. Among others they honoured Leadbelly, Jimmie Rodgers and Hank Williams. Also, John Hartford (‘Gentle On My Mind’) and Gordon Lightfoot (‘Early Morning Rain’) – ok, that’s about a plane but it’s still the railroad theme of distance.
The liner notes combine an engrossing travelogue and musical history lesson. The songs are well-known but freshly reworked with such sincerity and affection. To say the recordings are stripped back would be to understate but ‘Shine A Light’s’ live feel takes the listener along for the ride. Harmonies abound, none as haunting and lonely as ‘In the Pines.’